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Place Names Reveal Our Values, Vanities, Quirks

George Stewart's <em>Names on the Land</em> was first published in 1944.
George Stewart's Names on the Land was first published in 1944.

First published in 1944 and last revised in 1967, Names on the Land, an absorbing hunk of scholarship, is an inquiry into America's shifting values, enduring vanities and defining quirks. In his introduction to the reissued edition, Paris Review Deputy Editor Matt Weiland places author George Stewart (1895-1980) as a feisty generalist whose bibliography includes a definitive account of the Donner Party and the science-fiction masterpiece Earth Abides. Names on the Land earns its status as a classic by reading like a compendium of fun facts raised to a Whitmanesque prose poem.

The story gets into gear in the 1600s with England's Gabriel Archer, who seems to have labeled Martha's Vineyard according to the dictates of his own fancy; Stewart deems Archer the founding father of a poetic strain in place-naming. In 1784, the actual Founding Fathers suggested state names — among them the rejected Sylvania, Metropotamia and Chersonesus — that nicely illustrate Stewart's theory that politicians favor "rolling polysyllables": "Twenty-eight of the [state] names fit into the pattern most beloved of the orator — a long word accented on the next-to-last syllable, such as Montana or Minnesota."

Elsewhere, Stewart recounts controversies of yesteryear. "No feature of American naming has provoked fiercer attack," he writes, than the francophilia that produced Charlottesville, Louisville and, in Indiana alone, more than 100 other burgs ending in -ville. A populist, the author explains the fuss tartly: "It has been called ostentatious and lacking in good taste. Very well. Good taste was sitting comfortably in New York and Philadelphia when the town sites of Indiana were being cleared."

Onward he troops through tales of saint's days, street grids, immigration patterns and not a few hasty rechristenings. (During World War II, Swastika, Ariz., renamed itself Brilliant.) When Stewart left off, the most "precedent-shattering action of recent years" had been the Act of Congress that displaced Cape Canaveral — a name of three centuries' standing — to honor John F. Kennedy.

Names on the Land is a tribute to the American imagination, and we can hope it will inspire some young historian to pick up from there — to explain definitively how Manhattan got its TriBeCa and to explore the psychology that led suburban subdivisions to name their leafy cul-de-sacs after extinct Indian tribes. And I hereby move that we take up Stewart on his concluding idea to organize an "Association for the Preservation of Historic Names." Will the residents of Gene Autry, Okla., second the notion?

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Troy Patterson